“Fanny and I never really got on, despite the skilled presentation I enjoyed chasing chicken far more than consuming it...”
“I know I have a little Fanny in me...”
Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey (26 February 1909 – 27 December 1994), better known as Fanny Cradock, was an English cook, bar maid, circus ring mistress and television personality. She is known around the world for her defence of traditional British food, transforming it from "hot food" to "haute cuisine".
Cradock’s place in the British Culinary Hall of Fame remained unquestioned until she was knocked off her pedestal by a tin of curry. It was the end of an era, though Fanny was the last to recognise that the world had changed and that slipping paper garters on chicken legs was now very old Toad in the hole.
Cradock was born in 1909 (some sources say 1920, while others report 1914) and died December 27, 1994. As a girl in unfashionable Leytonstone in the London, young Fanny exhibited all of the normal traits that a young girl of her age, albeit one who dressed exclusively in chiffon from day one.
She was an insistent youth, pestering her parents to read her the adults-only sections of Alice in Wonderland, or throwing tea parties in the family back yard, but the juvenile version of the child that was to morph into Fanny Cradock was by accounts mostly normal. That is to say that she wasn't extraordinary in any way, save one: her mud pies were famous throughout Essex, an English county downwind from London.
As Fanny explained on an early BBC News interview at the age of eight "One needn’t be the best preparer of mud pies, nor should one show an allegiance to any particular type of clay, soil or water to prepare the mud pie; its all in the presentation as you see before you. I have arranged the mud pies in a semi circle upon my make believe platter and garnished them with lichens, a few blades of heather and a dead song bird, who we just pretend is alive, since it's our make believe party, alright, shall we? And it makes for a visually stunning presentation that anyone can do. Isn't that lovely!? Now, be seated..."
Her personal life
As young Fanny grew larger, no, that’s not quite what we meant, that is to say as her femininity ripened, and her figure grew into womanhood, she made a series of personal missteps that resulted in her becoming a bigamist. It was about this time she asked everyone to call her 'Fanny', a name that never fails now to reduce a cookery tv show audience to a severe bout of the giggles. By then Fanny was then used only for domestic servants standing under Victorian gaslights, hawking their domestic science skills and gyrating their hips under the yellow glow.
Well the first stumble was when Fanny married a man who died shortly after the wedding. The poor dear; choked on a chicken bone while flying a plane. Tut, tutt. Accidents do happen, you know. Then she married a second man, who introduced her to the humble potato. But he was a bit of a bore, so Fanny bolted to London to “blend in” a bit. While there, she met and married another man. And wouldn’t you know it, she had forgotten to divorce that last husband, like forgetting to take her buns out of the oven! So this time Fanny went off to Scotland and divorced The Third man before she got burned.
Is all this clear as mud?
Good, then. Let's continue.
Johnnie come lately
Shortly thereafter, Fanny met up with - you guessed it - yet another married man, this one by the name of Johnnie Cradock, whose last name rhymed with a type of fish. He was a food critic ('I like a courageous lover over a decorated tart any day') and Fanny - knowing that her options were becoming limited - saw an opportunity, which she seized. Knowing that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach (though some of the more baser types normally prefer lower), Fanny broiled Johnnie some beef, roasted him some potatoes and turnips and garnished the food within an inch of its life with peas, pearl onions, parsley, some glitter and a few bird feathers (that she picked up off the pavement) and well, there you have it! The beginning of Fanny's career in food, and a love affair with a married man.
Fanny and Johnnie were married in 1977, but wouldn’t you just know it: that pesky first husband of her's was still very much alive, and she was still married to that oversized ass Orson Welles, the Third Man. Oh, bother! She was a bigamist again, doubly cream so! Oh, well, you can’t win them all, can we?
In the 1950s, Fanny and Johnnie, the man she wrenched away from his wife and small children, began having cooking demonstrations in public theaters. The Brits, who were sick and tired of their World War II rations of powdered tea cakes and marzipan, were captivated by her. And Fanny's advice was at once simple, yet never before considered:
"Simply because it can be boiled don’t do it." she said on her inaugural show. "You can toast it. You can grill it. You can even put it in a roaster or fry it up in a pan, but you needn’t boil it into submission."
Not boil our food? This was really a revolutionary idea to the British people.
So popular were these public shows that Fanny was picked up by the BBC for not paying the license on her television, but she enticed them with a dish broiled lamb, fried “hedgehog en crut” and various soups and savory stews, all served up in grande style and flourish. Even the suckling pig wore pants!
All the time Johnnie would lurch onto the set to tell everyone that 'Fanny was a wonderful cook' and then disappear again to finish one of bottles of red wine they had to go with the meals. Fanny didn't mind and nor did the BBC. She had made cooking programs the new 'rock 'n' roll' of the age and was rewarded with her own TV program. Johnnie got in too (he is essential Fanny insisted) and it gave her the chance to work off her tax debt at the same time.
Bigger than Bonaza!
Once the shows began to air on TV, Fanny soon became known for such exotic fare as dressing a roasted turkey in full regalia (or a beaded gown), or dressing a roasting chicken in a fluffy coat of corn flakes, or burying a pork roast in a bed of peas. She was the first use festive white paper crowns on the feet of suckling pigs, telling her viewership that "sometimes your dinner likes to feel pretty," but at the same time warning them that "the main course should never look more appetizing than you, the hostess."
Cradock also introduced the British palate to food coloring and dyes to help them get past their fear of any vegetable that wasn't white. As a result, green piped whipped potatoes became an absolute fad and carrots redder than apples de rigueur. Her fare was to concentrate on strong, no nonsense primary colors. It didn't really look like anything, traditional French in approach if not finished product and not American either with food piled high as the Rocky Mountains. It was English, British if you preferred...and tasted like nothing on Earth.
Millions of women throughout the United Kingdom soon came to know that “Set your cooker on range point 7” meant that a cake was in the offing. Excitedly, they defrosted their peas and carrots and plucking the eyes off potatoes as quickly as they could as Fanny was known to pipe, garnish and decorate with them no matter what she made to a level that left Liberace drooling for more.
For a presenter on a cooking show, one of the odd aspects of her hosting duties was that she never provided recipes for her dishes, but instead would say "You'll find that recipe in the booklet, so I won't show you now," as if the audience knew what she was getting at. And she never told anyone where to buy the booklets, either.
Fanny's recipes were often served in millions of households without being finished or cooked throughly. Still, it was so much better than what they had been used to before and people ate the undercooked ducked, half-frozen chickens and cold peas as if it were ambrosia of the gods. And the ratings for her show were beating Bonanza all the way back to the ranch.
The Gwen Troake incident
Lets not go there and say that we did, alright?
But we must.
The Gwen Troake incident, redux
In Britain Fanny was a kitchen colossus but she was about to be toppled. Her career crashed and burned in the late 1970s after she advised BBC contestant winner Gwen Troake to set aside her planned desert for a televised function that Troake was to cater. Cradock felt that the bread pudding was too common and pestered Troake for something more befitting the occasion.
"You’ll have sea going men at the table. I say serve them their favourite dish: spoiled Shit on a Shingle SPAM with a seaweed ragout. And serve it in a spun sugar boat." Troake looked astonished. "Don’t you dare ask my advice and then toss it aside! This recipe won’t break you!" said an indignant Cradock.
The camera caught Mrs. Troake fighting back her tears and Cradock sensed weakness. Fanny, who detested weak people, then reared back and announced "I can, and will ruin you if you fail to get with the program!" as there was a loud boom and the television screen went all 'staticy'.
Unfortunately for Fanny, Ms. Troake was wearing a tin-foil Pickelhaube and Cradock’s curse bounced off of her head and hit Fanny dead on turning her into a Zombie. Still worse yet, Fanny's suggested dish was deemed a main course, not a dessert, everyone had to be terribly pleasant about eating it, even if it wasn't sweet and chocolaty. Said actor Robert Goulet who was a guest at the event, "This has utterly ruined my entire swinging life."
Because the BBC was known for the precise elocution of its television presenters, and with Fanny reduce to gurgling and moaning like all zombies do, she was let go, and thus she was cast adrift into the sea of humanity.
In her twilight years
Following the humiliation that Fanny whooped on Gwen Troake, and now banned from British TV, she spent her remaining golden days dressing in billowy fabrics and complaining that Margaret Thatcher had stolen her lacquer. In the room filled with her past culinary triumphs Fanny directed the activities of her ward Estella and encouraged her to 'expose your bosom' if any dishes fell flat once pulled out of the oven. Estella complained of her treatment and asked David Copperfield to rescue her from this misery or by waving his hips to make Fanny disappear into the wall. He declined to help and left her for the sauerkraut delights of Claudia Schiffer.
In another part of the house, Johnnie had drifted far from sanity. Surrounded by the detritus of a once expansive wine collection his dying words are reported to have been may all your dumplings turn out like Fanny's, a fact not reported at the time for its double entendre possibilities. Fanny did not cry but left the room as a shrine to Johnnie, the old soak's body being allowed to slowly dissolve into the sofa.
Fanny died when an ember from the nearby fire caught her gown afire. Found too late to save, the newspapers reported that she was toasted to a golden crisp, and was buried upon a bed of glazed miniature onions and peas, piped potatoes tinted green, and given a going off party where delicate white wines were served.
At the wake Fanny's only friend Julia Child opened a bottle of semi-chilled Worcestershire sauce and screamed "Bon Appétit!" before the guests helped themselves to the old girl and her over-seasoned giblets.
Perhaps Fanny's ghost would have at least managed a wry smile on that final quip - if she had possessed a less cruel sense of humor.